On World Press Freedom Day, new threats against journalists mount
Journalists have long been targeted for telling the truth; but the methods deployed to silence independent reporting have expanded.
Two sinister and distinct trends in harassment have emerged: the onslaught of online abuse targeting – in particular – women journalists, and the weaponization of laws against media professionals.
Both are run by malicious influencers desperate to control an increasingly valuable currency: the free flow of information. But increasingly, it is the person rather than the profession that is under attack.
The numbers are grim. UNESCO’s recent global survey of over 900 female journalists in 125 countries found that 73% had experienced online violence.
These abuses ranged from misogynistic harassment and digital security attacks to coordinated disinformation campaigns leveraging hate speech. A quarter of these journalists had received threats of physical violence, including rape and death threats.
Online abuse is not “virtual” abuse. The impact of sustained and orchestrated digital hate campaigns on an individual’s mental health, physical well-being, and even civil liberties can be catastrophic, with discredit, self-censorship, and a permanent shutdown of independent reporting on the latest victims of the war against press freedom.
This is powerfully illustrated by the experiences of Indian journalist and Washington Post opinion writer Rana Ayyub, whose investigative reporting that implicated Prime Minister Modi’s administration and sparked the ire of his supporters led to years of persecution and a tidal wave of online violence, including death. threats, racism, “doxing” and misogyny — almost 8.5 million tweets since 2019.
Meanwhile, BBC disinformation journalist Mariana Spring has publicly documented the misogynistic hatred she receives online, sparked by her coverage of online conspiracies and fake news.
The ability to mobilize large-scale online attacks is amplified by the increased consumption of information on social networks; According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, around two-thirds of those who consume news globally now use social media or messaging apps.
According to the International Center of Journalists, online violence has led 30% of those targeted to self-censor on social media, with some leaving the profession for good.
The perpetrators of this harassment act with almost total impunity. Left unchecked, critical reporting, a diverse representation of voices, and the ability to question authority are eradicated.
But those same results are also fueling the rise of the militarization of laws against journalists.
Afghanistan and Russia
Laws on “fake news” and disinformation continue to be used as a smokescreen to suppress press freedom, as illustrated by the “11 rules of journalism” imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan last September, which prohibit reporting that is not “coordinated”. with the government’s Media and Information Center — alongside anything that isn’t “the truth.”
More recently, Russia’s recently strengthened fake news laws criminalize those who spread “false information” about the Russian military with up to 15 years in prison.
The latest victim is Siberian journalist Mikhail Afanasyev, arrested two weeks ago for a story alleging that 11 riot police refused to deploy to Ukraine. He is among 28 people arrested under the new law – another nail in the coffin of independent media in Russia, which has all but disappeared since early March.
At the same time, there has been an increase in the use of a wider range of laws to silence a free press.
Dubbed “lawfare” by human rights lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who acts for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, as well as the family of slain journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia (who was the subject of from 48 trials to his death), this form of harassment sees journalists accused of legal threats ranging from fraud to corruption to copyright violations.
Gallagher says a new tactic is to hit journalists with a multitude of lawsuits simultaneously, forcing them to fight on multiple fronts. This leaves them unable to carry out their work, scrambling to find specialist legal assistance, and makes them more vulnerable to the effects of smear campaigns.
The CEO of the Philippine news site Rappler and investigative journalist Ressa is the most notorious victim of this harassment. A prominent critic of President Duterte, Ressa has been accused of everything from cyber-libel suits – a law that came into force after Rappler published a story linking corruption to the justice system – to tax evasion and violations of foreign ownership.
Meanwhile, Brazilian journalist Patricia Campos Mello is currently facing three separate lawsuits, including two brought by businessmen linked to President Bolsonaro over her investigative reporting.
One of those cases involves 35 other journalists, many of whom are freelancers who cannot rely on their employers for legal assistance.
Patricia – who has also endured years of online smear campaigns – bucked the trend by winning her own case against the president after successfully suing him and his son Eduardo Bolsonaro for repeatedly suggesting that she was offering sex in exchange for scoops. They are appealing the verdict.
There have been small steps in the right direction, such as the EU’s proposal for a new law that would counter the rise of ‘gagging procedures’ on journalists and human rights activists, including SLAPPS (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation).
Meanwhile, Britain’s Online Safety Bill, introduced in March this year, would place greater responsibility on social media platforms to limit harmful content, although critics say it does not go far enough and call for a much more proactive approach from tech companies. themselves.
What is needed, however, is a coordinated and collaborative response – from governments and law enforcement to tech companies and the media – to protect the right to report freely and fairly.
Failure to protect our journalists is failure to protect the future of independent media. Addressing the harassment they face is a moral imperative and should be a shared goal.